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Unless you live in a cave, you may find it difficult to avoid hearing Taylor Swift's "Out of the Woods" this year. The song - about Taylor's troubled relationship with one of the members of One Direction - is a brilliantly crafted piece of pop music that has been covered by multiple singers and bands (including the Christian group For King and Country).

The music video for "Out of the Woods" debuted on New Year's Eve and has already racked up more than 15 million views on YouTube. It features a kaleidoscope of scenes (mountain, woods, snow, ocean), with Taylor enduring distress as she fights to free herself from the challenges in her surroundings.

"Out of the Woods" is about a relationship on the rocks. It's about trying to work through issues until restoration takes place. But the end of the music video has a twist.

When Taylor emerges from her struggle, all scuffed up and muddy, she walks forward to a pristine, unharmed Taylor-look-alike on the beach. As soon as she puts her hand on the identical woman's shoulder, the song is over, and these words come on the screen:

She lost him.
But she found herself.
And somehow that was everything.

In a matter of minutes and in just a few words, Taylor Swift's music video provides a popular-level version of what philosophers and sociologists call "expressive individualism." It's the idea that the purpose of life is to find and express your individuality. You "find yourself" by fighting through all the constraints placed upon you by others. The goal is to emerge triumphant, fully aware of your own unique essence, so you can express yourself to the world.

This is one of the dominant narratives of 21st century American culture, so it's no surprise to see our musical icons telling this story through song.

“She lost him.” In other words, the relationship failed. They never made it out of the woods. In the case of most love stories and love songs, you'd think that means the song is sad, a lament of sorts.


Here's the crucial turning point, the good news according to Taylor Swift. “She found herself.” Notice that the broken relationship isn't a sad ending after all, because the failure is what enabled her to find herself. Emerging from the woods, Taylor sings about how the relationship died, but through this death she has come alive to her true self.

The end of "Out of the Woods" makes sense to people today. If the highest purpose of life is to discover yourself, then everything - including our relationships - must be reoriented to that view of self-discovery and self-exploration. The dissolution of the relationship is now a good thing if it prompts that crucial moment of self-discovery.

Why does this song by Taylor Swift resonate with people? Because, deep down, all human beings want to be totally known and totally loved. And the shortcut to being totally known and totally loved is to "know yourself" and "love yourself" - to no longer be dependent on anyone else for your happiness.

The end of "Out of the Woods" also appeals to the idea that all our troubles in life are part of a grander story of discovery. "And somehow that was everything." The big story of self-discovery supersedes whatever heartache you've experienced.

But, like I said above, this is only a shortcut, and the happiness from such "self-discovery" is fleeting.

  • How does Taylor Swift really know that she's found herself?
  • How does she know the look-alike on the beach isn't just a mirage?
  • Will her next relationship be simply another avenue for her to find more of herself?

Here, the core message of Christianity affirms the longing expressed in "Out of the Woods," but challenges the solution the song provides.

Yes, the Bible says, there is a grander story of discovery that makes sense of all our trials. But that story is radically God-focused, not self-focused. It's a story about God finding and saving unworthy sinners, not our own attempts to find and save ourselves. It's discovering how God expresses Himself in grace to the world through the death of His Son, not how we express the worth we think we have in ourselves.

What's more, Jesus once said something that sounds very counter-intuitive to our ears today. The one who finds their life will lose it, but the one who loses their life - for His sake - will find it.

Friends of mine who have followed Taylor Swift's career tell me that her songs have followed a story arc. Her earliest songs could be summed up this way: I am searching for the right person who will fulfill me forever. Later, her songs turned to heartbreak: I am grieving the fact I may never find meaning in life and love. Now, her songs are a declaration: I have, in myself, everything I need to be happy.

The question now is whether she will arrive at a fourth stage: I've been looking for love in all the wrong places. That's the stage where, by the grace of God, people who are looking for happiness might stop looking in and start looking up. 

The gospel that calls us out of the woods of sin and brokenness rewrites those final lines from Taylor Swift's music video. She lost herself. But she found Him. And somehow that was everything.

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19 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Taylor Swift”

  1. Andy says:

    I dunno Trevin. Clearly I am a cave dweller. I suppose I may eventually hear parts of this song but it probably won’t be on purpose. I have a feeling though:

    She lost him.
    But she found herself.
    And somehow that was everything.

    That a woman’s expression of these words means something much different than what you’re posting here. This is the kind of stuff that women only talk to women about because men don’t get it. Well, not that we don’t get it, it’s that we can’t get it. We’re guys. The deep places of a woman’s soul. Scary stuff.

  2. Katmoncue says:

    The ” finding yourself” narrative can also be replaced by the ever popular “ife is a journey”. Either one allows an individual to declare personal victory and avoid the shame of naming specific sin. Thanks for pointing out that “finding yourself” stalls out turning to God for His glorious grace and receiving restoration to His nourishing fellowship.

  3. Hi!
    Excellent post! I have a blog myself for Spanish speaking church and I wanted to know if it’s possible to use this material and translate it, so it can reach Spanish speaking people. I would really appreciate it.

    Cheers and God Bless you!

  4. John S says:

    although not the most serious implication of this philosophy, I pity the ‘next guy up’. Although if he can’t see that Taylor’s personal narrative supersedes makes him a pawn in the story of her ‘life arc’ I don’t think pity is the correct term.
    In ancient times (aka 20 years ago) they called this type of person a narcissist. And it had a negative connotation.

  5. James says:

    A different (but complementary) point of contrast:

    “But she found herself” versus “But when he came to himself…” (Luke 15:17)

  6. Ginger Edwards says:

    I think we need to be careful not to overthink something that’s meant to be just another silly love song. It’s easy to tear apart just about anything in pop culture if we put it next to scripture. We should stop tearing down women who are at least trying to provide a Christian image, even though imperfect, and be thankful that they risk their career to do so. I remember when Debby Boone’s signed was tarnished because of one stupid lyric featured in her biggest hit, “You Light Up My Life.” It went, “It can’t be wrong, when it feels so right.” That’s just a stupid figure of speech. But the Christian bandwagon jumped all over it. There are so many more important things that God is concerned with. Isaiah 58.

    1. Ginger Edwards says:

      * reputation, not signed. Stupid autocorrect.

      1. Nendir says:

        I see what you’re saying and as a woman I understand how this may feel like the author is reading too much into these lyrics and the title may be a bit much lol. However, I think if we are to give Taylor Swift a pass for “at least” trying to provide a Christian image, we get in trouble. We know that little foxes spoil the vine, if there is untruth by way of the gospel in her songs, it would be irresponsible for us to say “well, at least she tries”. We can acknowledge her efforts while still correcting her flaws. Also, I’m sure that Taylor identifies as Christian but I don’t know that we can describe her music or lifestyle as one that spreads Christianity or the gospel more than all-american morality. This type of morality saves no one. I admire her kindness and amiableness but it somehow isn’t enough, we must all work for greater and call out Christian brothers and sisters on issues like this. Blessings.

  7. Perry says:

    To the author of this article Trevin Wax, I’m a big fan of The Gospel Coalition and I agree with the idea that our identity is found in Christ. However, I don’t agree with what you are doing in this article. The title of this article implies that Taylor Swift made a statement about the gospel, but she was clearly was not making any statement about the gospel in this song. I understand that you are using her words as example of modern philosophy, but I think that this title is a clear misrepresentation of Taylor Swift. I would like to encourage you as a fellow brother in Christ to give some thought to whether this is an appropriate approach to take in order to make a point.

  8. Crisla says:

    Artistic expression inside a theological microscope annoys me. If I, as a Christian, interpret this video – I would probably insert the reality of coming out of a bad (perhaps abusive relationship) to self identity and wholeness found not in a man but in Christ. My artistic filter is based on that – and finally seeing yourself as a whole beautiful creation of God instead of a piece of the broken is a wonderful start.

    1. Drin says:

      Thank you. When we begin to realize that we must care for and be good to ourselves, and that we can be our own friend vs being disappointed by another’s inability to care for us, there is peace. I tried to surrender to God without being a friend to myself, and I couldn’t recieve any love at all from God or anyone else. I believe she’s talking about an important shift.

  9. Ginger Edwards says:

    Just by way of follow up to Nendir’s response to my earlier comment, I was not suggesting we give Taylor Swift a “pass.” Instead, like Crisis above, it’s annoying when Christians publicly and critically examine other Christians’ artistic expression under a microscope. The song wasn’t meant to be an expression of the gospel and to treat it as such is simply inappropriate. And if a believer wants to correct another Christian, scripture calls for that to be done privately by fellow church members, not in a public forum and not by a stranger.

    1. Ginger Edwards says:

      *Crisla, not Crisis. Dang autocorrect!

      1. Nendir says:

        I think beyond it being annoying that we examine pop songs under theology, it is also necessary. So I don’t even think that the author is implying Taylor misrepresented the gospel but more that her song represents a pseudo gospel- redemption being found in self identity. So while you might watch it as a Christian and think of it in godly terms, newer Christians and non Christians might buy into this concept, so it would be less about correcting Taylor privately as he doesn’t have that access and maybe more about exposing the weakness of this thinking for those who might see it as harmless.

  10. Clint says:

    “Friends of mine who have followed Taylor Swift’s career tell me…” – It’s okay to say that you’re a Swifty! haha

  11. Ginger Edwards says:

    Just to continue the thread of thought with Nendir… By saying that Swift’s song “represents a pseudo gospel- redemption being found in self identity,” the article’s author is, in a sense, implying that Taylor misrepresented the gospel. And what he’s done, (no offense intended to Mr. Wax whom I’m sure is sincere in his thoughts), is to take what was intended as just a silly love song and set up a straw man argument through all kinds of personal assumptions about what the idea behind the song is and how it is to be interpreted, and why it resonates with people. But I wonder if these aren’t completely his own opinions, which he treats as if they were Taylor Swift and everyone else’s opinions. The truth is, most people don’t watch a pop video as if it were a “Christian” presentation or “think of it in godly terms” as Nendir suggests. I’ve never heard of any Christians, new or old, getting their theology from secular pop culture rather than Biblical sources. And we mustn’t forget that the Holy Spirit was given to guide each believer in knowing truth from lie. Finally, just as an afterthought, the fact that Mr. Wax doesn’t have access to Ms. Swift doesn’t release him from the precepts of Matthew 18 which says that when believers have a problem with another believer, they are to approach one another privately and through the local church, not in a public forum like social media. No wonder society looks down so on Christians. We are constantly squabbling and criticizing each other while children starve in the streets. I suppose my comments on this thread could fall under that same criticism, but I don’t really mean to attack Mr. Wax; I just lament that he has joined the throng of those who write articles criticizing fellow Christians rather than writing on a topic that portrays the church and/or believers in a positive light.

  12. J P Williams says:

    All I know is that if it is Taylor Swift v Wolves, I am betting on the wolves every time.

  13. Dave says:

    Taylor Swift needs to realize that the most consistent feature of all of the bad relationships and break-ups that she has had is that very person she meets on the beach at the end of her video.

  14. These kind of meditations help believers to clarify deceiving messages, and non-believers to approach the Gospel, and God willing, to stay in it. Also your final transformation of Swift’s phrase was beautifully done. Thank you for sharing.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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